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Will NASA Get Autonomous Drones to Lift Off?

NASA proposes a digital data and reasoning infrastructure to coordinate the movement and interactions of autonomous vehicles in future smart cities.

While we don’t normally cover airborne vehicles at Drive Sweden, we see this as an exception given the potential relevance of the technology here also to road vehicles.

Navigating a city is a complex matter of adjusting and adapting to the environment in one’s immediate vicinity while simultaneously moving toward a destination. People accomplish this with apparent ease. However, even for people information about the surroundings beyond immediate perception, such as an incoming storm, traffic, or an accident can change and improve how they negotiate the city. For instance, depending on someone's reasons for getting to a certain location, the hospital say, the added information that rain is imminent, or that the travel time is greatly increased, may mean not going at all or going earlier to ensure a timely arrival.

We take this flexible context responsive reasoning for granted, but it is no easy task for even the most advanced devices. This is what NASA’s project is investigating for autonomous vehicles by “exploring if it’s possible to create an inventive information infrastructure that can assemble and provide useful information to … [them] in real time.” The autonomous vehicles in focus are airborne. Think delivery drones, air taxis, and even higher-flying vehicles. Drive Sweden does not normally look into drones, but what NASA is postulating may have relevance for autonomous vehicles in general, including regular old passenger vehicles.

“If all goes well with executing the DRF activity, drones will have the information they need to take the safest and most efficient course of action with minimal human input, similar to how our devices provide real-time updates while we’re out and about.”

Often when we are thinking about self-driving vehicles or delivery robots, we imagine machines with powerful sensors and powerful processors that are guided by complex algorithms. What NASA is proposing here, a Data and Reasoning Fabric or (DRF), is a way of distributing some of the sensors and computing power into a digital infrastructure. The key to this is what NASA is calling an edge node. Many edge nodes networked together across a city create a digital net that gathers information, about weather for example, and can provides direction to drones or air taxies.

Some aspects of this proposed solution should be familiar to all of us. The phone in your pocket depends on a networked structure like this. That network is composed of cells, hence why American’s use the term cellphone. Like a digital beehive structure each cell is covered by a tower that receives and transmits data, a cell tower. An edge node is like a cell tower, but with a significant difference: it isn’t passive, it’s active. It is in these nodes that the ‘reasoning’ from the name Data Reasoning Fabric is supposed to take place.

“All on their own, the computerized edge nodes would access data, translate it into useful information, and reason what each drone needs to know. The nearest edge device to a vehicle would send the aircraft information specific to its plans and activities in the smart city.”

As the name implies the idea is that some parts of the logistical reasoning are distributed across the edge node network, or fabric as it is called in this case. Autonomous drones will, undoubtedly, have some onboard processing power as well. They will also have sensors. But here too the DRF model predicts distributed sensors, envisioning a smart city marketplace where companies put their data, from traffic to weather, out for services like the DRF to utilize.

The key difference between DRF and the cellular data technology we are familiar with is the distributed computing process. This alleviates some of the bottleneck for vehicles, potentially reducing cost, and sets the groundwork for the safe, effective, and efficient coordination at significant scale, which would be needed if we are to have flocks of drones in tight city areas.

Personal Comment:

The DRF is an intriguing approach. Something like this is needed if we are to have flocks of drones in our cities. Especially if those cities are on the moon or Mars, which is not outside consideration when NASA is involved. The idea of drones flying out our cities delivering people and goods may seem as otherworldly, but the core technology may have applications earlier in the here and now.

Embedding sensors in roads, and the built environment, is already taking place. Everything from stoplights to walkways for pedestrians are becoming capable of transmitting information. Edge computing, where certain calculations are performed between the end user and data centers, is an expanding area of research and application. It is thought that these are essential pieces to the puzzle of moving our cities toward the autonomous future.

Even though we may wonder if delivery and taxi drones are the way we will choose to organize our future cities, the development of a system that acts as a sort of digital conductor is a potential way to bring many of the hoped-for advantages of a smart connected city to fruition.

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Människa-autonomi)